A few weeks ago, I walked out of a show by one of my favorite bands. Strangely, I'd also split early from their last Brooklyn concert, and one a few years back. The music wasn't the problem; each time, I was reminded that the group in question, the spastic, Providence noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt, is one of the world's most awesomely energized live bands. The issue was, if you will, a spatial one.
For years now, the band has refused to play on stages. They set up their equipment--a huge stack of amps and a beat-up, mismatched drum kit--on the floor, inviting the audience to crowd around them as tightly as possible. In the early aughts, this spectacle gained Lightning Bolt a mythic reputation. They toured incessantly, and their shows became gradually crazier and more unhinged. Shunning the stage was a fourth-wall-shattering statement of purpose, the latest in a long line of meaningful indie-rock refutations. (The legendary D.C. band Fugazi practically predicated an entire career on saying no, to everything from selling logo t-shirts to charging more than $5 at the door.) By not performing above the crowd, the band threw a meaningful wrench in the rock-star hero-worship apparatus.
I attended a few of those early Lightning Bolt shows and they were thrilling. I remember being swept away by a heaving loft-size mosh at a show in Bushwick and witnessing a Greenpoint appearance within sweat-flying distance of drummer Brian Chippendale. The Power of Salad, an excellent DVD released by the band a few years back, captures not only the mayhem of that period, but also the euphoric expressions on the faces of young audience members having their minds blown.
But the practice had its drawbacks. Word quickly spread that if you weren't savvy enough to stake out a spot near the band, you wouldn't catch so much as a glimpse of them. Instead, you'd be left with a disorienting and somewhat unsatisfying explosion of light and noise emanating from somewhere within the sea of bodies.
And that wasn't the worst of it. At a show a couple years back in Red Hook--the first of my walk-outs--the crowd surged so violently that they repeatedly knocked over Chippendale's drums and upset the effects pedals of bassist Brian Gibson. The concert devolved into a fit of frenzied starts and frustrated stops.
Naturally I became a little disillusioned. Hadn't they proved their point by now? Couldn't they throw a bone to showgoers uninterested in being squashed? A few months ago, after walk-out number two--the venue was packed when I arrived, and knowing I was doomed to zero visibility, I split before the band even started--my friends and I encountered a dejected-looking girl asking for directions to the subway. "My friends told me Lightning Bolt was awesome, and I really want to see them," she explained. "But I just can't deal with that crowd."
Recently, I decided to give it another shot and took my girlfriend, who had never heard the band, to a Lightning Bolt show at the Brooklyn club Studio B. I briefed her on my previous disappointments and we decided to stake out early. The jostling began well over 30 minutes before showtime, and bad vibes simmered. One young man justified his right to a prime spot by asserting that he was attending Lightning Bolt shows in Providence long before they were famous.
The promoter, a longtime LB supporter who booked many of the early shows that made me a fan in the first place, did his best, deploying a seven-or-so-man "safety crew" to keep things orderly. But as soon as the amps were cranked up and Chippendale gave his snare a few ear-splitting test thwacks, it was obvious that they weren't going to be much help.
At first, the movement was rough but tolerable. I had space enough to remember why I'd bothered in the first place, marveling at the awesome density of Chippendale's drumming and his telepathic communication with Gibson. Scanning the crowd, I noticed one young girl in the throes of that old Lightning Bolt ecstasy: She flailed wildly and beamed, basking in the band's liberating power. By the third song, though, it was all over for me; the crowd surged and maintaining balance seemed like a joke. My girlfriend got her toes smashed and we almost went down. Time to eject.
We hung out in the back for a while. The sound was surprisingly clear and the duo was on fire. You could see a little bit of the action in a huge round mirror that the band had mounted on top of the amps. But that wasn't much to go on. In the midst of walk-out number three, my girlfriend said, "They're going to have to start playing on stages at some point." I thought about it for a minute and disagreed, reasoning that as long as they keep it up, their audience will constantly renew itself with younger listeners, like the beaming girl I saw, who are willing to endure the inconvenience--who relish it even--in order to catch a glimpse of the admittedly breathtaking spectacle. For everyone else, there's always the DVD.